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2008 was a really important year, insofar as the Great Recession accentuated an important distinction within the white middle class. It drove a wedge between the middle and lower-middle or working class and the highly trained, professionally educated managers, technocrats and intellectuals—basically, between the top 20 percent and the bottom 80 percent. And that meant [there] were now class differences that were overlaid upon some of these cultural differences. And in surveys that we’ve done here at the Institute [for Advanced Cultural Studies at University of Virginia], we’ve tracked that. In 2016, the single most important factor in determining a Trump vote was not having a college degree.

So now, instead of just culture wars, there’s now a kind of class-culture conflict. With a sense of being on the losing side of our global economy and its dynamics, I think that the resentments have just deepened. That became obvious, more and more, over the four years of Trump, and part of Trump’s own genius was understanding the resentments of coming out on the losing side of global capitalism.

And I think this is reflected, too, in the ways in which progressives speak about the downtrodden: Most of the time, it is in terms of race and ethnicity, immigration and the like; it is not about the poor, per se. I think that’s a pretty significant shift in the left’s self-understanding.

What do you think is behind that shift?

Well, if you became an advocate for the working class, you’d be an advocate for a lot of Trump voters. Again, I think there’s a class-culture divide: a class element that overlays the cultural divide. And they [white non-college-educated voters] voted en masse for Trump. And I think that’s an element of it. They’re also the carriers of what [some on the left] perceive to be racist and misogynist, sexist understandings and ways of life. That’s my guess.

Straightforward, materialist social science would say that people are voting their economic interests all the time. But they don’t. The seeming contradiction of people voting against their economic interests only highlights that point: That, in many respects, our self-understanding as individuals, as communities and as a nation trumps all of those things.

Along those lines, there can be a tendency, especially on the political left, to talk about “culture war” issues as being “distractions” that are raised in order to divide people who might otherwise find common cause around, say, shared economic interests. What do you make of that view?

We are constituted as human beings by the stories we tell about ourselves. The very nature of meaning and purpose in life are constituted by our individual and collective self-understandings. How that is a “distraction” is beyond me.

You know, people will fight to the death for an idea, for an ideal. I was criticized in the early ’90s for using the word “war” [in the term “culture war”]. But I was trained in phenomenology, in which you are taught to pay attention to the words that people themselves use. And in interviews I did [with those on the front lines of “culture war” fights], people would say, “you know, it feels like a war”—even on the left.

I talk about this sense of a struggle for one’s very existence, for a way of life; this is exactly the language that is also used on the left, but in a much more therapeutic way. When you hear people say that, for instance, conservatives’ very existence on this college campus is “a threat to my existence” as a trans person or gay person, the stakes — for them — seem ultimate.

The question is: What is it that animates our passions? I don’t know how one can imagine individual and collective identity—and the things that make life meaningful and purposeful—as somehow peripheral or as “distractions.”

There’s a passage you wrote 30 years ago that seems relevant to this point: “We subtly slip into thinking of the controversies debated as political rather than cultural in nature. On political matters, one can compromise; on matters of ultimate moral truth, one cannot. This is why the full range of issues today seems interminable.”

I kind of like that sentence. [Laughs] I would put it this way: Culture, by its very nature, is hegemonic. It seeks to colonize; it seeks to envelop in its totality. The root of the word “culture” is Latin: “cultus.” It’s about what is sacred to us. And what is sacred to us tends to be universalizing. The very nature of the sacred is that it is special; it can’t be broached.

Culture, in one respect, is about that which is pure and that which is polluted; it is about the boundaries that are often transgressed, and what we do about that. And part of the culture war—one way to see the culture war—is that each has an idea of what is transgressive, of what is a violation of the sacred, and the fears and resentments that go along with that.

Every culture has its view of sin. It’s an old-fashioned word, but it [refers to that which] is, ultimately, profane and cannot be permitted, must not be allowed. Understanding those things that underwrite politics helps us understand why this persists the way it does, why it inflames the passions that we see.

It feels like the universe of things that might be considered part of the “culture war” has grown considerably over the past 30 years, such that it seems to now envelop most of politics. In that situation, how does democracy work? Because when the stakes are existential, it would seem like compromise is impossible. Can you have a stable democracy without compromise?

No, I don’t think you can. Part of our problem is that we have politicized everything. And yet politics becomes a proxy for cultural positions that simply won’t brook any kind of dissent or argument.

You hear this all the time. The very idea of treating your opponents with civility is a betrayal. How can you be civil to people who threaten your very existence? It highlights the point that culture is hegemonic: You can compromise with politics and policy, but if politics and policy are a proxy for culture, there’s just no way.

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Guinea declares end to latest Ebola outbreak

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“I commend the affected communities, the government and people of Guinea, health workers, partners and everyone else whose dedicated efforts made it possible to contain this Ebola outbreak,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

“Based on the lessons learned from the 2014–16 outbreak and through rapid, coordinated response efforts, community engagement, effective public health measures and the equitable use of vaccines, Guinea managed to control the outbreak and prevent its spread beyond its borders.” The U.N. said it will continue to provide post-illness care.

The CDC welcomed the news in a statement.

“I commend the government and first responders in Guinea for ending the country’s Ebola outbreak,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. “Our heartfelt sympathies are with the people who lost loved ones to this disease. CDC remains committed to supporting survivor programs and helping strengthen global preparedness and response capacities that can prevent or extinguish future Ebola outbreaks.”

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Hard-line judiciary head wins Iran presidency amid low turnout

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In initial results, former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei won 3.3 million votes and moderate Abdolnasser Hemmati got 2.4 million, said Jamal Orf, the head of Iran’s Interior Ministry election headquarters. The race’s fourth candidate, Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, had around 1 million votes, Orf said.

Hemmati offered his congratulations on Instagram to Raisi early Saturday.

“I hope your administration provides causes for pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran, improves the economy and life with comfort and welfare for the great nation of Iran,” he wrote.

On Twitter, Rezaei praised Khamenei and the Iranian people for taking part in the vote.

“God willing, the decisive election of my esteemed brother, Ayatollah Dr. Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, promises the establishment of a strong and popular government to solve the country’s problems,” Rezaei wrote.

The quick concessions, while not unusual in Iran’s previous elections, signaled what semiofficial news agencies inside Iran had been hinting at for hours: That the carefully controlled vote had been a blowout win for Raisi amid the boycott calls.

As night fell Friday, turnout appeared far lower than in Iran’s last presidential election in 2017. At one polling place inside a mosque in central Tehran, a Shiite cleric played soccer with a young boy as most of its workers napped in a courtyard. At another, officials watched videos on their mobile phones as state television blared beside them, offering only tight shots of locations around the country — as opposed to the long, snaking lines of past elections.

Balloting came to a close at 2.a.m. Saturday, after the government extended voting to accommodate what it called “crowding” at several polling places nationwide. Paper ballots, stuffed into large plastic boxes, were to be counted by hand through the night, and authorities said they expected to have initial results and turnout figures Saturday morning at the earliest.

“My vote will not change anything in this election, the number of people who are voting for Raisi is huge and Hemmati does not have the necessary skills for this,” said Hediyeh, a 25-year-old woman who gave only her first name while hurrying to a taxi in Haft-e Tir Square after avoiding the polls. “I have no candidate here.”

Iranian state television sought to downplay the turnout, pointing to the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms surrounding it ruled by hereditary leaders, and the lower participation in Western democracies. After a day of amplifying officials’ attempts to get out the vote, state TV broadcast scenes of jam-packed voting booths in several provinces overnight, seeking to portray a last-minute rush to the polls.

But since the 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, Iran’s theocracy has cited voter turnout as a sign of its legitimacy, beginning with its first referendum that won 98.2% support that simply asked whether or not people wanted an Islamic Republic.

The disqualifications affected reformists and those backing Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord.

Voter apathy also has been fed by the devastated state of the economy and subdued campaigning amid months of surging coronavirus cases. Poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would put hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though it still remains short of weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus could be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Speculation already has begun that Raisi might be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

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Apathy greets Iran presidential vote dominated by hard-liner

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“My vote will not change anything in this election, the number of people who are voting for Raisi is huge and Hemmati does not have the necessary skills for this,” said Hediyeh, a 25-year-old woman who gave only her first name while hurrying to a taxi in Haft-e Tir Square after avoiding the polls. “I have no candidate here.”

Iranian state television sought to downplay the turnout, pointing to the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms surrounding it ruled by hereditary leaders and the lower participation in Western democracies. But since the 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, Iran’s theocracy has cited voter turnout as a sign of its legitimacy, beginning with its first referendum that won 98.2% support that simply asked whether or not people wanted an Islamic Republic.

The disqualifications affected reformists and those backing Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord. Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also blocked from running, said on social media he’d boycott the vote.

Voter apathy also has been fed by the devastated state of the economy and subdued campaigning amid months of surging coronavirus cases. Poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would put hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though it still remains short of weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus could be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Speculation already has begun that Raisi might be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

Khamenei cast the first vote from Tehran, urging the public to “go ahead, choose and vote.”

Raisi, wearing a black turban that identifies him in Shiite tradition as a direct descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, voted from a mosque in southern Tehran. The cleric acknowledged in comments afterward that some may be “so upset that they don’t want to vote.”

“I beg everyone, the lovely youths, and all Iranian men and women speaking in any accent or language from any region and with any political views, to go and vote and cast their ballots,” Raisi said.

But few appeared to heed the call. There are more than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation of over 80 million people. However, the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has estimated a turnout will be just 44%, which would be the lowest since the revolution. Officials gave no turnout figures Friday, though results could come Saturday.

Fears about a low turnout have some warning Iran may be turning away from being an Islamic Republic — a government with elected civilian leadership overseen by a supreme leader from its Shiite clergy — to a country more tightly governed by its supreme leader, who already has final say on all matters of state and oversees its defense and atomic program.

“This is not acceptable,” said former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who sought to change the theocracy from the inside during eight years in office. “How would this conform to being a republic or Islamic?”

For his part, Khamenei warned of “foreign plots” seeking to depress turnout in a speech Wednesday. A flyer handed out on the streets of Tehran by hard-liners echoed that and bore the image of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020. A polling station was set up by Soleimani’s grave on Friday.

Some voters appeared to echo that call.

“We cannot leave our destiny in the hands of foreigners and let them decide for us and create conditions that will be absolutely harmful for us,” said Tehran voter Shahla Pazouki.

Also hurting a moderate like Hemmati is the public anger aimed at Rouhani over the collapse of the deal, despite ongoing talks in Vienna to revive it. Iran’s already-ailing economy has suffered since, with double-digit inflation and mass unemployment.

“It is useless,” said Ali Hosseini, a 36-year-old unemployed resident in southern Tehran, about voting. “Anyone who wins the election after some time says he cannot solve problem of the economy because of intervention by influential people. He then forgets his promises and we poor people again remain disappointed.”

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